Peter Sellars' opera reads the Passion story in contemporary terms

The Gospel of the Other Mary
ENO, until December 5

Among the more (perversely) memorable highlights of the Proms this summer was a staging of Bach’s Matthew Passion that effectively left Jesus out. Of course, he had his music, but he had no place on stage. He sat apart, a hidden presence. And it troubled me. The message seemed to be that the director Peter Sellars (radical, American, notorious) wasn’t interested in him as the central figure of the Passion story, but only as a concept to which others, then and now, respond.

But Sellars had, in fact, done something similar in a modern quasi-Passion by John Adams called The Gospel of the Other Mary, showing at the ENO. It had its British premiere at the Barbican two years ago, semi-staged by Sellars, who had himself compiled the text. And this, too, was a Passion narrative with Jesus sidelined – his words sung in reported speech by a trio of countertenors who functioned like a collective Evangelist, but with no specific Jesus character. So once more I was troubled. As I thought I would be last week, when Other Mary returned for what was advertised as its world stage premiere at the Coliseum.

I say advertised, because the staging was again by Sellars and not hugely different to the way we saw it at the Barbican: done minimally, in simple modern dress, with little but barbed wire and cardboard boxes. But thanks to proper lighting, with the orchestra removed down to the pit and serious rehearsal time, it had more focus, poetry and nuance. And for me, it was transformed.

Like many a Renaissance painting, Other Mary reads the Passion story in contemporary terms, with boundaries blurred between the biblical events and modern incidents of social conflict and oppression. The “Other Mary” of the title is Mary of Bethany (sister of Martha and Lazarus), who is assumed to be one and the same with Mary Magdalene. The piece becomes a statement about great events experienced by women: critically engaged, but cast by history into the role of watchers from the sidelines.

Last time around I found this messy, and the packaging in “social relevance” excruciating: Mary and Martha are politically engaged, running a women’s refuge, organising picket lines. Frankly, it still grates, but less so: Sellars is naïve but honest, an engaging quality. And I was totally won over by the score, which is in turns abrasive and sublime, and strikes me now as one of Adams’s best – persuasively conducted here by Joana Carneiro, with a striking voice like Russell Thomas as Lazarus.

As for the missing Jesus, I’m persuaded that perhaps he isn’t. Maybe he’s the piece itself, suffused into the essence of the music. Only the composer and librettist can explain. So far they haven’t.